Pastor Promise Lee was a driving force behind organizing the Hillside Neighborhood in the 1990s to clean up its crime-ridden community southeast of downtown. Their work resulted in the neighborhood receiving national recognition as an "All-American City."
Last year, Lee, the pastor of Relevant Word Ministries, had designs on running for the Colorado Springs City Council. But before he had a chance to announce his candidacy, the sitting council adopted an ordinance prohibiting convicted felons from running for public office. The ordinance appeared to target Lee, who had been convicted of murder when he was a teenager. The council repealed the edict after the ACLU of Colorado sent a threatening letter to the City, but Lee, 43, opted not to seek public office after all.
In a recent interview, Lee discusses the relevance of Black History Month, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the current realities of being a person of color in Colorado Springs.
Indy: This week marks the end of Black History Month, during which Martin Luther King, Jr.'s message -- his dream that we can all be equal -- is often exalted. Are we getting his whole message?
Lee: You hear about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you never hear about Vernon Johns, who preceded King and, like King, was an intellectual giant, but a little more extreme than King was. We continue this mode of celebration and not understand the reason for the celebration. You ask the average person why they're celebrating the day or activity and most times they don't even know. It's the dummying down of America. I don't think we'll ever see black history taught in public schools, because black history is different than Negro or African history. Black history talks about social ills and genocidal acts on groups of people. Many prefer to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his passiveness and commitment to nonviolence -- certainly they would prefer to celebrate that rather than that of Malcolm X, who said, 'If you hit me, I will hit you back." That is an example of black history rather than Negro history.
Indy: What do you think about the notion that people, particularly politicians, tend to invoke Martin Luther King's gentler side, as opposed to his more strident positions?
Lee: King had many different messages, and many leaders quote him when its convenient for them, whatever their platform is. Unfortunately, this is not a new concept. We have a lot of creed and we don't see it translated to deed. But it's important the creed become the deed. It's cheap politics to quote something but not live it out. At some point we need to quit focusing on the past and focus on the now. We often say children are the future. We hardly ever hear that children are the now. The same thing goes with the holidays and the celebrations -- they become cheap days off.
Indy: So how do we make every day Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Lee: There has to be a sensitivity, not just for black people, but for mankind. An acceptance of differences and realizing that in our differences, therein lies our strength. It's like a quilt. You take a patch from this piece of cloth and that piece of cloth and sew it together. If we can do this with material, why can't we do it with God's greatest creation, which is mankind?
To begin to do this, we need to take a look at the statistics that are out there, see how far we've come and how far we've still got to go. Let's look at the city and county employment ratios [for whites versus people of color], and literacy and hate crimes. Let's focus on these more serious issues.
Indy: Many of our local leaders, including Colorado Springs Police Chief and acting City Manager Lorne Kramer and Sheriff John Anderson have stated that their officers do not target people because of the color of their skin. From your vantage point, is racial profiling an issue here?
Lee: I would say they are in denial. It's unfortunate for [Kramer] to say it doesn't exist in a department of over 400 officers on the street. For a man to make the statement suggests the man knows the heart of every person who works there. And that isn't the case. It's not a new issue; before the term racial profiling or Driving While Black became a catch phrase, we ran several programs teaching people of color that, when they are pulled over, don't reach in your pocket. Don't make any sudden moves. Answer "yes, sir" and "no, sir." Try to pull over where there is crowd of people. The term "racial profiling" came later than the behavior. I would say that in [Colorado Springs], it's not as much of a problem as in the bigger cities but to deny it's a problem is ignoring the problem.
Indy: What are the major issues for the average local African American?
Lee: In my circle, it's economics and education and the importance of us gaining some equality. We want the opportunity to access the services and resources that everyone has. Economics is at the top of the list, because in most circles money answers most questions. In the progressive churches, the sermons are about living the life of excellence and economic empowerment. There are workshops about personal development, balancing checkbooks, job training, which is a little different than the black churches of old. There is a shift that is taking place, and I'm glad about it.
Even in grocery stores you can see inequality. In stores that are closest to poorer neighborhoods, notice how the floor looks, the uncleanliness and lack of quality of meats and vegetables compared to stores on North Academy. Even the light is different. It's a striking difference. There's an attitude that just enough will do. I took a young boy out one night for a school project to convenience stores and compared prices in the B Street area. The basic staples -- eggs, bread, milk -- were priced significantly higher than in other areas.
Indy: So how do we affect change?
Lee: What we're talking about is a changing of the heart, and that's something you can't legislate. Everyone has to play a part -- the mayor, the City Council, the average citizen. And right now you see it played out more among the average citizen. If we don't change, and if change doesn't occur, then it has to occur from the bottom by revolution.
Indy: Is that revolution being waged in Colorado Springs?
Lee: Without a doubt it is. But it's a quiet revolution. It's people who are engaging in self-help programs and knowing they can be somebody -- preparing themselves to be able to sit at the table and access the resources. It's a quiet revolution against social injustice.